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Rousuck Review: "Commander" At Vagabond Players

Chelsea Dove

Theater critic J. Wynn Rousuck reviews “Commander”, part of the Baltimore Playwrights Festival at the Vagabond Players:

“Commander,” a Baltimore Playwrights Festival production, continues at the Vagabond Players through July 24 The Supreme Court’s recent decision legalizing gay marriage is so crucial to Mario Correa’s play, “Commander,” it’s difficult to imagine the play without it.

“Commander,” at the Vagabond Players, is the first production in this year’s Baltimore Playwrights Festival. I can’t think of a show this topical in the three decades that I’ve covered the festival. The play is about the campaign of the first openly gay presidential candidate.

Ned Worley is the fictional governor of Rhode Island. He’s been in a committed relationship for 12 years. But he and his partner are not married. The issue of gay marriage threatens to tear them – and Ned’s presidential campaign – apart. Correa, a former Marylander, is a self-described “political junkie.” His previously produced play, “Tail! Spin!”, used verbatim source material to satirize such scandalous politicians as Anthony Weiner and Mark Sanford. The result was well-received in New York.

“Commander,” in contrast, is pure invention, but it feels just as real. Mark Scharf skillfully plays Gov. Ned Worley as a hard-driving, humorless candidate, a man who tries to be forthcoming and withholding at the same time. Most of all, Ned is determined not to focus on what an insistent reporter (played by Fiona Ford) calls the “historic” aspect of his candidacy. Ned isn’t the only one reluctant to make his sexual orientation a campaign issue. His campaign manager -- played by Jeff Murray as a steely, tough- talking veteran – gives him advice on when to hide the gay card and when to play it.

Playwright Correa has written more than a hypothetical political exercise. He also shows the personal cost of a high-stakes political campaign, especially one that dares to defy boundaries. Under the careful direction of Chelsea Dove, the principal characters undergo changes that build slowly, but unrelentingly. Scharf’s Ned is increasingly heartless as he becomes more invested in winning. It’s almost as if he trades personalities with his seasoned, cynical campaign manager, as Murray aptly portrays him. At one point, Ned makes a comment so coldly calculating, Murray’s character admits even he wouldn’t say it.

The impact of the campaign on Ned’s partner, a high school teacher named Richard, offers the most cutting commentary on the state of American political races. Richard kiddingly calls himself “Jackie O,” but he’s clearly uncomfortable about the prospect of becoming the “First Gentleman.” Thom Sinn initially seems a bit mannered as Richard. But the actor movingly steps out of the stereotype as Richard comes into his own, describing how he and Ned met, and how those circumstances shaped their relationship. After this affecting speech, however, the play unnecessarily shifts back in time, and we watch Richard and Ned enact the scene that Richard just described. This redundant flashback -- like the play’s abrupt ending -- is a jagged edge in a fairly smooth production.

But in the wake of the Supreme Court ruling -- and particularly now, at the start of a presidential race -- “Commander” offers sharp analysis and character development. It also contains references, stated or just below the surface, to sources ranging from Edward Albee’s “The Lady from Dubuque” to Stephen Sondheim’s “Merrily We Roll Along.” So, “Commander” stems from a strong dramatic tradition. Combined with its startling timeliness, this first production in the 34th annual Baltimore Playwrights Festival sets the bar high.

J. Wynn Rousuck has been reviewing theater for WYPR's Midday (and previously, Maryland Morning) since 2007. Prior to that, she was the theater critic of The Baltimore Sun, where she reviewed more than 3,000 plays over the course of 23 years.